Retro Film Review: The Godfather Part II (1974)
The real importance of any movie can't be adequately appraised solely by the box-office success or critical response, or even combination of both. Movies, no matter how popular or critically acclaimed, cease to be important when the passage of time erases them from collective memory. Only those films that defy such oblivion are really grand, and the nice example are first two movies of the Godfather Saga. Their grandness can be seen not only in their quality and the influence that had over the generations, but also by the endless debate that lasts among the critics and film scholars until this day. The debate was created due to the fact that the second movie of the Saga, The Godfather Part II, represents one of the first examples of now generally despised practice in modern Hollywood - making sequels out of the successful, great movies. Such practice earned the utter disdain of contemporary critics because the sequels almost always fail to meet the hard standards of its predecessors and, more often than not, succeed only in tarnishing their great memory. However, in 1970s, during the golden age of so-called "New Hollywood" such rule wasn't universal, and some films turned out to be even better than the first in the series. The Godfather Part II by Francis Ford Coppola is often referred as one of them.
Reason for the high status of The Godfather Part II lies in the fact that the sequel to The Godfather, very personal movie, was authored by the very same author with very same personal agenda. While the other sequels usually serve as nothing more than easy way for unimaginative producers to cash on previous successes, The Godfather Part II was a nice opportunity for Coppola to experiment, correct some possible flaws or even answer to critics of his previous work. Luckily, in the atmosphere that encouraged creative freedom, Coppola also used the immense resources of big Hollywood studios, whose chiefs gave him an utmost control of his work. The biggest and most serious objection to The Godfather was Coppola's allegedly apologetic portrayal the
Mafia - portrayal that would encourage similar more or less apologetic movie stereotypes in decades to come. Coppola was accused of showing organised crime more noble and less violent than it actually was - his Mafiosi are shown as dedicated family men, opposed to narcotics and any unnecessary violence, and in some way even better alternative to legitimate government. In his second part of the saga, Coppola intended to use the story of the first part to paint more realistic and, consequently, much darker picture.
The plot of the movie is rather complex, thanks to the revolutionary yet ingenious idea by Coppola to mix two stories. First one begins roughly one decade after the events of the first Godfather, with Michael Corleone (played by Al Pacino) now tightly in control of the Corleone crime family, left to him by his late and charismatic father Vito in the previous film. The second story deals with young Vito Corleone (played by Robert de Niro), first as boy forced to flee to America from Sicilian Mafiosi who had killed his entire family, then as young immigrant who must turn to crime in order to feed his wife and children. Those two stories are connected by good editing and Coppola's directorial techniques (the example in the beginning is the scene when 9-year old Vito Corleone that morphs into another scene, with Vito's 9-year old grandson), although at times the transition isn't so smooth or symbolic.
The story of young Vito Corleone seems more pleasing for the viewer, and is definitely more fascinating. Coppola obviously enjoyed recreating the harsh life of his Italian American ancestors, and he even indulged himself with the little humouristic episode that would remain the sole uplifting piece in this otherwise extremely grim and pessimistic movie. Robert de Niro was perfectly cast as young Vito and his legendary method acting techniques - like living in Sicily in order to perfect the use of local dialect and accent - are here in full swing. Vito Corleone in his early years is as charming as he was charismatic in his Godfather incarnation. Sympathetic portrayal in the previous movie wasn't accidental - Corleone is shown as basically honest human being who is simply driven to the other side of law by harsh circumstances. Ironically, Corleone was actually the victim of Mafia in his youth - first, by losing his family, then by losing his job (his employer being forced to find job for mafioso's relative) - but he became first the member, than the leader of that very same organisation nevertheless.
His son Michael in the latter story is shadow, not only of his father, but of his own self being presented in The Godfather - generally nice guy who transformed from idealistic youth into pragmatic maturity. Michael's plan to carry on with his father's ambitious plan brings disastrous results - he loses his family, the most important thing and the very reason he decided to follow the father's criminal footsteps in the first place. Lacking father's charisma, Michael leads the family with the iron hand, thus alienating his closest relatives - his sister Connie (played by Talia Shire) left her own children and turned to debauchery; her wife Kay (played by Diane Keaton), disgusted with the loss of her freedom and ideals, plotted the vengeance of Medean proportions; his weak and neglected brother Fredo (played by John Cazale) decided to prove his own identity by betrayal. Even the most loyal member of the family - adopted brother and family councillor Tom Hagen (played by Robert Duvall) can feel Michael's loss of affection and desperately tries to regain it by speaking Italian, without any significant result. This segment is probably the darkest, least sentimental and most brutal part of the Godfather saga; Coppola obviously didn't like the object of his presentation and even the photography by Gordon Willis illustrates that - while the outside is sharply lit, the interiors of the Michael's luxurious buildings are mostly dark, symbolising the corruption and decay of his criminal empire.
Unfortunately, that segment was probably the weakest - weaker than the prologue and The Godfather. The main reason lies in the screenplay by Coppola and Mario Puzo, and the plot that lacks coherence. This segment introduces two new major characters - Michael's underboss Frank Pentangelli (played by Michael V. Gazzo) and Jewish mobster Hyman Roth (played by Lee Strasberg). Those two men has some serious inconsistencies in their characterisations. Pentangelli is at first simple street thug, only to be revealed + as well-read cultivated man in the film's finale. Roth is also inconsistent – his character, based on Meyer Lansky, real life underworld legend, is someone too clever and experienced to allow himself to engage in something as doomed as investing in Cuba at the brink of the revolution. Those flaws are somewhat compensated with the great actors in those characters' roles. That can't be said for other plot problems - lack of clear explanation for the conflict between Michael and Roth, and many subplots dealing with the real life events and anecdotes dealing with Mafia (Valacchi testimony in the Senate and JFK assassination). Finally, the lack of originality is revealed at the end, when Coppola almost recreates his multiple massacre scene from the end of The Godfather.
Despite repetitiveness and lack of originality, The Godfather Part II remains truly grand movie. Production design by Dean Tavoularis is superb (especially in the first segment); same can be said for the costumes by Theadora van Runkle (expensive white suit serves as wonderful character trait by Don Fanucci), but most of all the music by Nino Rota and Carmine Coppola is almost perfect. The lead actors are wonderful - Pacino, De Niro, Keaton, Shire, Cazale, Duvall, Gazzo, Strasberg, as well as those in supporting roles (Bruno Kirby as young Clemenza, Gastone Moschin as Don Fanucci, G.D. Spradlin as Senator Geary).
At the end of the day, perhaps even such great, "Oscar"-worthy film can suffer from dreaded "sequel syndrome". However, those flaws didn't prevent it from becoming a true classic, one of the pillars of modern cinemas, with its quality seldom matched.After almost quarter of century new viewers should be able to enjoy it - both those who didn't see The Godfather and those who did.
RATING: 8/10 (+++)
(Note: The text in its original form was posted in Usenet newsgroup rec.arts.movies.reviews on December 11th 1998)
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